Introduction to Messianic Judaism: An Exercise in Wholeness

intro-to-messianic-judaism-bigSimilarly, New Testament scholars have long-held that the Jerusalem community headed by Ya’akov/James was (1) primarily composed of Yeshua-believing Jews who (2) remained within the bounds of Second Temple Judaism and (3) lived strictly according to the Torah (Acts 15:4-5; 21:20-21). Michael Fuller, Richard Bauckham, Craig Hill, Darrell Bock, Robert Tannehill, and Jacob Jervell are among the many Luke-Acts scholars who maintain that the Jerusalem congregation viewed itself as the nucleus of a restored Israel, led by twelve apostles representing the twelve tribes of Israel (Acts 1:6-7, 26; 3:19-21). Their mission, these scholars contend, was to spark a Jewish renewal movement for Yeshua the Son of David within the house of Israel (Gal 2:7-10; Acts 21:17-26).

-David Rudolph
“Chapter 1: Messianic Judaism in Antiquity and in the Modern Era” (pg 22)
Introduction to Messianic Judaism: Its Ecclesial Context and Biblical Foundations

I very recently discovered this book in the “New Books” section of my local library. When I saw it, I immediately checked it out (on Thursday) so that means I have only two weeks to read it before I have to return it (no renewals for new books). I was pretty excited to find this book in my local library system (which covers several counties in Southwestern Idaho) since I’ve never seen any book that could remotely be called “Messianic” in our collection of libraries before. Congratulations Rudolph and Willitts for “breaking the barrier,” so to speak.

But what made me write this “meditation” based on the Introduction and Chapter 1 of this book was the focus on a topic that has been near and dear to my heart these past few months: the ancient Messianic Jewish world and how it impacted newly minted Gentiles disciples of the Jewish Messiah.

You all know the argument. In Acts 15, what exactly did James and the Council do? Did they cancel the Torah for all disciples of Jesus or only for the Gentile disciples? Opinions vary widely (and sometimes wildly), with most Christians seeing the chapter as the final death knell of the Torah and a minority Hebrew Roots group stating that it was the foundation of universal Torah obligation for everyone.

Messianic Judaism as I’ve come to understand the movement, somewhat splits the difference.

As F. Scott Spencer points out, “The representatives at the Jerusalem conference – including Paul – agreed only to release Gentile believers from the obligation of circumcision; the possibility of nullifying this covenantal duty for Jewish disciples was never considered.” If the Jerusalem leadership had viewed circumcision as optional for Yeshua-believing Jews, there would have been no point in debating the question of exemption for Yeshua-believing Gentiles or delivering a letter specifically addressed to these Gentiles. Michael Wyschogrod rightly notes that “both sides agreed that Jewish believers in Jesus remained obligated to circumcision and the Mosaic Law. The verdict of the first Jerusalem Council then is that the Church is to consist of two segments, united by their faith in Jesus.”

-Rudolph, pg 23

Sometimes when I’m having these debates with Pastor Randy in his office, I feel like it’s just him and me (well, it is just the two of us) with my tacit partner being D. Thomas Lancaster, since it is his book we are using as the object of our talks. In finding the Rudolph/Willitts book suddenly available to me, it’s a little like finding gold or a golden information treasure trove that links back to numerous, scholarly information sources, all supporting the basic belief that the ancient Jewish believers in Jesus (Yeshua) never saw being released from circumcision and Torah observance as an option. The only question on their minds was whether or not the Gentiles had to be circumcised and thus obligated to said-Torah observance as Jews.

It’s no secret that I depend on First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) as my primary information repository for all things Messianic (and by inference, all things Christian), but no matter how reliable a source they may be, they are still one source. It’s sort of like putting all my eggs in one basket. I know better than to believe a single source of data without searching for corroborating support. While the authors and contributors of the “Introduction” book (Rudolph and Willitts are the primary authors of the book, but there are multiple, scholarly contributors as well, so the book reads like an anthology) share many of the views espoused by FFOZ, they don’t share all of them, and that variability lends itself quite well to my corroboration requirement. Do other scholars in the Messianic and Christian academic spaces support the basic belief of early believing Jewish adherence to the Torah that was considered normative and not anachronistic or transient, and do they also share the belief that Gentile disciples were united with their Jewish counterparts in the body of Messiah without having to ever accept obligations to Torah observance that were identical to Jewish observance?

ancient_jerusalemI’ve only read the Introduction and Chapter 1 of the Rudolph/Willitts book as I write this, but so far, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Rudolph cites Philip S. Alexander’s “Jewish Believers in the Early Rabbinic Literature (2d to 5th Centuries) from the book Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (ed. Skarsaune and Hvalvik), 686-87:

They lived like other Jews. their houses were indistinguishable from the houses of other Jews. They probably observed as much of the Torah as did other Jews (though they would doubtless have rejected, as many others did, the distinctively rabbinic interpretations of the misvot). They studied Torah and developed their own interpretations of it, and, following the practice of the Apostles, they continued to perform a ministry of healing in the name of Jesus….[T]hey seem to have continued to attend their local synagogues on Sabbath. They may have attempted to influence the service of the synagogue, even to the extent of trying to introduce into it the Paternoster [the Lord’s Prayer], or readings from the Christian Gospels, or they may have preached sermons which offered Christian readings of the Torah. The rabbis countered with a program which thoroughly “rabbinized” the service of the synagogue and ensured that it reflected the core rabbinic values.

According to Rudolph, this is a description of Jewish believers who lived in the Galilee during the Tannaitic period or during the first two-hundred years (or so) of the Common Era (CE). In other words, according to Alexander, Jewish believers in Messiah continued to live as observant Jews after the lifetimes of the original Jewish Apostles of Christ.

I know I’ll get some criticism on a couple of points: the first being “circumcision” since it’s not Biblical as a means of conversion from being a Gentile to being Jewish (it certainly is Biblical in terms of the Abrahamic covenent which was re-enforced for the Jewish people by the Mosaic and New Covenants). I’m not going to get into a big argument. The Torah doesn’t presuppose circumcision as a sign of conversion because in the days of Moses, it wasn’t possible to convert to Judaism. One does not convert to a tribe or later, to a clan. By the days of the Maccabees forward, tribal and clan affiliation as a primary definition within national and covenantal Israel had been lost and Jewish religious authorities halachically introduced the process of allowing Gentiles entry into the covenants through ritual conversion.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte (convert)…

Matthew 23:15

Even Jesus accepts that the Pharisees and scribes (scribes can include other sects of first century Judaism including Essenses and Sadducees) were converting Gentiles to Judaism.

walking-together2The second point of criticism I’ll receive is how I believe that Jewish but not Gentile believers were obligated to full Torah observance as a result of the Acts 15 ruling (I’d receive a different criticism from most Christians by my belief that the Jewish apostles and disciples remained “under the Law”). See the earlier quotes in this blog post plus my six-part Return to Jerusalem series for my opinion and text supporting said-opinion on this topic. Again, I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this point. I have something more important to talk about.

The beginnings of this book go back to England. Joel Willitts and I met as PhD students in the New Testament at Cambridge University, where we studied under the same supervisor…

Joel and I became good friends and found that much mutual blessing took place whenever we had conversations about the Bible and theology. I valued Joel’s perspective as a Gentile Christian and Joel valued my perspective as a Messianic Jew. There was a synergy in our exchange that often led to fresh insights and unforeseen avenues of theological inquiry. My experience at Tyndale House with Joel and other Gentile Christian friends taught me that there is indeed a God-designed interdependence between Messianic Jewish and Gentile Christian ecclesial perspectives, and that one without the other is woefully inadequate.

Those were magical days in Cambridge. Joel and I talked about what we wanted to accomplish after we completed our doctoral programs and agreed to write a book together.

-Rudolph from the book’s Introduction, pg 18

The result of that dream is the book that’s sitting next to me on my desk as I compose this blog post. A Gentile Christian and a Messianic Jew collaborated together as co-authors, co-editors, and close friends to do what in all likelihood, they could never have done independently. In fact, it took twenty-six Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians to create Introduction to Messianic Judaism. The product is a physical example of an ecclesial reality. Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians need each other. Apart, each one is only half of the whole. Together they…we are the body of Messiah.

Christianity, in general, is the ultimate in inclusionist movements. Any one from any place can turn to Messiah and be accepted. No prior experience required. As it turns out in reading Rudolph, his vision of Messianic Judaism is one that isn’t whole without including Gentile Christians. Our differences complement each other, as do the differences between a man and a woman in a marriage. We aren’t complete without each other.

I look forward to continuing my reading of Rudolph’s and Willitts’ book. So far, it is inspiring hope.


10 thoughts on “Introduction to Messianic Judaism: An Exercise in Wholeness”

  1. I have for you one minor argument about something akin to conversion being available in the time of Moshe or slightly before. Calev ben Yefunah was considered a highly placed member of the tribe of Yehudah, but his father Yefunah was a K’nizzi (i.e., one of the tribes of K’na’an). There is no mention of either Calev or his father marrying a woman of Yehudah in order to be accounted among the tribal membership (not to mention his younger brother Ot’niel who also was a “son of K’naz” yet was accorded honor and inheritance in the Land – see Judges 1:13-20; 3:9, & 1Sam.30:14). We do not know how these fellows became part of the tribe of Yehudah, though it is said of them that they followed HaShem fully. It may have no bearing on our own era, since the Jewish authorities have since defined in detail what is now the accepted method of joining the Jewish people. Nonetheless, I thought it worth mentioning because you have stated more than once that one could not convert to a tribe or clan, and this is evidence to the contrary.

    Otherwise I have no special comment to offer for this topic.

  2. ” Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians need each other. Apart, each one is only half of the whole. Together they…we are the body of Messiah.”

    This is a wonderful book, I have mine on kindle, and am surprised you found a copy in a public library!

    I’ll bring up “conversion” for 2 reasons: 1) in my Bible reading, “Jews” are always and only a particular group of people (physical descendants of A,I&J). A non-Jew was welcomed and their marriage to a Jew was the “conversion”, provided they accept the God of Israel and reject their former pagan ways.

    However, they never “became a Jew” as is the terminology today. They remained Gentiles legally attached to Israel, and their children were Jews.

    Why is that important?

    2) maintaining the Biblical understanding is the only way a certain picture emerges (that you relate in the above quote), for otherwise it’s unperceivable if we call Gentiles who joined Israel “Jews”, as in the case of Ruth, (Rahab, and others). Taking the Bible’s word for it and maintaining her as Ruth “the Moabitess” is the only way to see that picture.

    If we do damage to the story by insisting she “became a Jew”— we miss it completely.

    The “picture” is a Godly one, and if maintained illiminates so much confusion and insecurity..

    1. Well, Ruth, your inference about marriage as the process by which children of ancient intermarried couples became Jews is logical, but we simply don’t see any evidence of it in Calev’s case (or Yefuneh’s). The Rabbis consider Ruth to be a valid convert and thereby Jewish. Subsequent references to her as a Moabitess are an identification of her national origin rather than a definition of her religious or communal status. Thus they recognize a difference between these identity markers, which also might be applied to the case of Yefuneh the K’nizi whose children Calev and Ot’niel clearly were considered valid members of the tribe of Yehudah, even though Ot’niel also bears a reference as a “son of Kenaz” (i.e., a Kennizite). We don’t see info about Yefuneh himself, or whom he married that she should become Calev’s and Ot’niel’s mother, though we can infer that this must have occurred during the Egyptian servitude, given Calev’s adult age and status during the desert period and into the conquest of K’na’an. It’s even possible that Yefuneh and the boys’ mother didn’t survive long enough to join the Exodus and pass through the divided sea. This could well explain the silence about them despite their somewhat famous sons.

      Of course, neither Calev, nor Ot’niel, nor Rahav, nor Ruth, nor anyone who joined the A, I & J/I, Mosaic covenant people prior to the Babylonian captivity would have been concerned about the title “Jew” or ‘becoming a Jew” (even those associated with the actual tribe of Yehudah), because that terminology didn’t become current and meaningful until after the return from the first exile in Babylon. It is we who use that terminology to recognize their communal status as we look back across time. Nonetheless it is a valid terminology, as was their status. If this fails to be entirely clear via “biblical understanding”, perhaps that is because reading it at this late point in time requires some assistance to augment our ability to understand its ancient culture and outlook, and the pithiness of its text. This is where the intermediaries of Oral Torah and rabbinic interpretation fill in the gaps for us. That’s not damaging to the stories; rather it repairs the background that has become tattered over time, losing previously-understood information along the way.

  3. I would humbly say that if the Master thought a convert could become “twice the child of hell,” there had to have been some covenant he was ignoring, meaning the Master held that the conversion was valid.

    1. @drake – That’s a rather interesting bit of logic to infer that Rav Yeshua acknowledged the validity of Pharisaic conversions; though it’s a rather negative and backhanded approach. However, I suspect that observation (Matt.23:15) and critique, which was aimed at faulty Pharisaic behaviors that their converts would emulate, is not a very strong point on which to hang the legal validity of their conversion. Nonetheless, I don’t see that anyone here has challenged the validity of Pharisaic conversion or its modern Rabbinic equivalent. The only question, that I may have erred to raise at all, was about ancient methods or standards of conversion (and its validity). I certainly never intended for this one very minor point, mentioned only in passing, to characterize the entire discussion of James’ blog topic about wholeness or unity between the two segments constituting the body of Rav Yeshua messianists. I don’t know if that may be interpreted as an indication that the readership has ignored commenting on that issue because they essentially agree with it and have no substantive issues to discuss about it.

      I do understand that the issue of conversion is something of a lightning-rod attracting discussion at present, because there does exist some justification for some whose families have previously become estranged from an original Jewish source to return and reconnect with it. For example, a number of Jews were absorbed into one or another Christian environment during attempts to escape various persecutions and oppressions such as the Holocaust and back as far as the expulsions from Spain (maybe even farther back than that). Hence we find individuals of Hispanic Catholic background who have discovered via family history and genetic testing that they descend from Jewish families. Their motivation to discover this has also impelled them to wish to return, and for them conversion would validate that return in a legal manner, because the intervening history of intermarriage has disturbed their lawful connection with the Jewish people. Similar problems exist for some whose families passed through the European Holocaust. Some cannot even find physical or historical evidence to explain their internal impulse that drives them to connect (or presumably to re-connect) with the Jewish people.

      On the other hand, there seem to be many non-Jews who are seeking a connection with Jewish roots despite any reason beyond their allegiance to Rav Yeshua as the Jewish king. For these, we must invoke Rav Shaul’s discouragements against conversion, whereby he hoped to encourage a greater witness about the redemption of all peoples and not merely some augmented and diluted version of the Jewish people. Indeed, if these truly value HaShem’s choice of a distinctive Jewish people and covenant, they must join the effort to guard and defend that choice, those people, and the covenant that defines them, and not try to diminish them or invalidate them or to overwhelm and dilute the Jewish people with a vastly greater number of converts.

      Thus, for non-Jews, discipleship rather than conversion must be the appropriate focus of attention. This, of course, opens up the entire range of questions with which James has been wrestling in this blog. What exactly is to be the content of non-Jewish discipleship that is nonetheless a valid reflection of Rav Yeshua’s instruction in Matt.28:19-20 (i.e., [and I’m paraphrasing/re-translating this deliberately to bring out seldom-noted meaning] “make disciples of all the nations, immersing them in the purposes of the Father and the Son, and in the spirit of holiness teaching them to observe all that I commanded you …”)? The Acts 15 decision to release non-Jews from the Torah obligation that would accompany conversion and circumcision does not diminish the implications of this discipleship, and the demands of such discipleship underscore the importance of Acts 15:21 that reiterates the availability of synagogues and Shabbat Torah study.

      It seems to me that it is precisely in the pursuit of discipleship that the two segments of the bi-lateral ecclesia may best cooperate.

  4. I know I’ll get some criticism on a couple of points: the first being “circumcision” since it’s not Biblical as a means of conversion from being a Gentile to being Jewish…

    I thought I might get some comments on this one little slice of my blog post, but it didn’t come in the anticipated form. Nonetheless, this is an interesting conversation. I just hope readers haven’t missed the wider implication of my “mini-review” of the beginning of the Rudolph/Willitts book. Monday’s “morning meditation” continues the commentary on their work.

  5. Rudolph said:If the Jerusalem leadership had viewed circumcision as optional for Yeshua-believing Jews, there would have been no point in debating the question of exemption for Yeshua-believing Gentiles or delivering a letter specifically addressed to these Gentiles.

    Was the debate simply over the commandment of circumcision, or was the debate over Acts 15:1, Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.

    In my opinion, Rudolph completely missed the argument.

  6. You’ll have to talk to David Rudolph on that point since I can’t speak for him, but I’m sure you are aware of how I see the matter of circumcision, Zion.

  7. James,

    I’m enjoying your reviews of Introduction to Messianic Judaism chapter by chapter–I hope at the end you’ll summarize your thoughts and add them to the growing list of reviews on Amazon. You mentioned FFOZ as your primary source of things Messianic; in addition to IMJ (and PMJ–another great work!), I hope you’ll begin to think of David Rudolph’s as a “first stop” for questions about New Testament interpretation. The site is essentially an attempt to catalog all resources (books, articles, dissertations, videos, etc) which look at the New Testament through a post-supersessionist paradigm. I find it very useful myself (except maybe from a budgetary perspective, since the contents of the site are slowly making their way into my personal library. But that process had already started–mjstudies just helps me know where to look).

    I think the site could be particularly helpful in contexts like your conversation with Pastor Randy. Instead of simply laying out an alternative interpretation, what if you could point to evidence that a growing group of scholars, theologians, pastors, and academics (many of whom are in IMJ) see this paradigm as solving key questions of New Testament interpretation. The way I think of it is, “Why should I try to convince someone of an issue when I can simply convince them to consider the argument of a Richard Bauckham or a Craig Keener?”


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